Skiing with the sangha

When I heard about the retreat I knew I wanted to join. Not wanting to seem overly attached (a no-no in Dharma circles), I tried to bring it up as casually and offhandedly as possible with the monk who was organising the retreat. Internally though I was experiencing some apprehension. I’d only been skiing once previously, and that was fourteen years ago. Would I be out of my depth? I reassured myself that “being in the Sangha I’ve learned to turn my hand to lots of things. It’s Plum Village’s first mindful ski retreat so in that regard we’re all beginners!”.

Only we weren’t. I was the only beginner; the rest of the monastics and retreatants seemed to have learned to ski by the age of five and had several decades of experience. I could scarcely remember how to put my ski boots on.

There was something awesome about being in the mountains. The mountains had an immensity that drew me right out of my own little world and straight into the present moment. Time stopped for me and I felt that taking a breath, the whole mountain range was breathing with me. I knew I was a tiny speck on the side of a mountain, totally insignificant compared to the size and age of this mountain, yet I felt very spacious and connected.

It was a strange experience on the slopes, alternating between this state of openness and at other moments feeling scared and inadequate. Usually when I’m not good at something I have the tendency to avoid it in order to avoid a feeling of inadequacy or not being good enough. On this trip I was being confronted head on with that habit energy. I was clearly the weakest skier in the group and they often waited for me to catch up with them.

This reached fever pitch for me on the third morning of the retreat. We had to take a black slope as part of that morning’s route. Black slopes are the steepest, most difficult slopes. Worse still, there was no fresh snow on the slope – it had all frozen to ice overnight. Black slopes looked steep when I had seen them from a distance, but when I stood on the precipice and looked down I had the impression the slope was more like a vertical drop. My muscles became tense enough that you could probably have stood on my outstretched arm.

A picture I found on Google of a representatively steep slope
Except for me, we were all very good skiers!

So it was with no small amount of terror that I tipped over the plateau and started to make my way down. I fell at the first turn. There was a kind of panic in my mind. Would another skier careen into me? I tried to stand up but the ski had popped off one of my boots. I was stuck there, seemingly floating against the side of this vertical slope. My mind was blank with fear. I had a faint thought that gravity was working at the wrong angle to my body.

A reconstruction of the accident that befell your author

In exactly that moment when the helplessness of my situation rang through my body and mind, I felt something reassuringly firm against my ankle. A woman from our group appeared in front of me, beckoning me to stand up. Another retreatant had clamped their foot against my boot so that I could stand up and put back on my ski. I got up and followed her lead down the slope.

I think for the two ladies and the group it was a pretty unremarkable incident. Someone fell over and got back up. For me though it was a moment of redemption. For so long I had heard about taking refuge in the sangha but my own fears and resistance to being vulnerable prevented me from ever doing this publicly. I had only faked the practice of taking refuge, coming from a position of strength and faux humility. But lying against that slope after I fell I felt about as vulnerable as the day I was born. I couldn’t get out of the situation by myself, I had to rely on and trust in the others.

It was a healing, transformative moment for me because previously I’d always been too scared to depend on others. Somehow I thought my security could only come from being totally independent and self sufficient. While that approach to life gave me some security, it also deprived me of the joy and happiness of being in relationship with others. It never provided true safety because it denied the reality that we inter-are with each other.

The retreat was relatively small, only about twenty of us. There was a kind of intimacy that we shared from being such a small group. Every evening we practised total relaxation and Dharma sharing together. We practiced sitting meditation together in the morning and evening. And every day we were privileged to be party to that amazing experience of the mountains and the snow. It was in that kind of togetherness that we bonded.

I had lots of thoughts about Sangha during that retreat. Each of our group had their own qualities and limitations. No one of us was perfect in every human aspect. But somehow as a sangha we were strong and dynamic. We had a lot of talent and energy.

One morning we found a quiet slope. We were the only group there and it was perfectly silent. We each took turns to ski a stretch of this slope. The rest of the group waited above or below the stretch. As a group we practiced listening to the sound each person made as they skied down the stretch. We simply beheld each member as they expressed themselves and their joy of being through the movement of ski.

Some were fast, some were slow; some seemed to bend gravity while others were more deliberate with their movements; some let out a hoot of joy, others were silent in concentration. Everyone was utterly themselves, a cell in our sangha body in relationship with everyone else. We all had different qualities, but what we shared in common was that we were present for each other.

There are a few places left if you would like to join the upcoming Mindful Ski Retreat in Andorra, March 6-11th 2018. Click here for more information.


The Plum Village Ski Sangha 2017

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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